From offices run out of its suite in Centennial, Hope operates 81 learning centers, most in and around Denver. These learning centers take many forms, including rooms in churches and schools with religious affiliations. Each center has about 18 students working online, under the eyes of a mentor. Teachers travel from center to center to oversee students and mentors.
Bill Hines was superintendent of Vilas in 1999, when it started the Vilas Online school. Now, he works out of his home in Oklahoma as a consultant for Vilas and other schools. Hines also operates his own for-profit online school, ABCyber School, which has a Vilas address and aims to “provide a complete package for any school in the US to start and run their (sic) own online school,” according to its Web site.
“You know what this fuss is all about?” he asks. “Jealousy. ‘Li’l old Vilas is stealing our money.’ Jealousy and money is what it is. We’ve taken money from other schools, but those students we took had not been successful. Students are not the issue for the other districts, it’s money.”
But what about the money?
Property taxes play a big role in school funding in Colorado, and not all Colorado school districts were created equal in terms of property values. In 2006, property in the Vilas RE-5 school district had a total assessed valuation of $5.1 million; school property tax revenue came to $195,000, or $1,950 per student. Compare this to, say, the Steamboat 2770 school district in Routt County, which had a 2006 assessed valuation of $634 million and revenue of $16.2 million — $7,762 per student.
On the surface, the Vilas brick-and-mortar school and the Vilas online schools are separate. But because both operate under the auspices of Vilas RE-5, they can commingle funds. “In this local-control state, we’re reluctant to tell districts what they can do with the money,” Colorado Education Commissioner Moloney says. “All the money flows into the district. What they do with it is up to them.”
According to Mary Lynn Christel, a finance specialist with the Colorado Department of Education, a school district with 100 kids (such as Vilas’ brick-and-mortar school) would ordinarily have a budget of about $1 million dollars under state funding formulas. (That estimate would not include categorical funding, such as transportation and gifted and talented and special education programs.)
Vilas’ online efforts have brought it funding well above the $1 million mark. Documents from the Colorado education department Web site show that in 2005, Vilas RE-5 received about $3 million in revenue, of which $2.4 million came from the state, not local sources.
According to documents supplied by Hope Academy after the December auditor’s report, the academy received $5,865 of per-pupil revenue in 2006, of which Vilas retained $950 as management and curriculum fees. With an overall enrollment of some 3,800 — the vast majority in Hope — the revenue from 2006 adds up, not just for Vilas, but at Hope, which was expected to bring in more than $20 million in 2006.
Having so many online students — and the state funding that follows them — lets the Vilas physical school offer more elective classes, Shields says, such as home economics, music, shop and choir. It also allows the district to pay its workers better: Shields makes $75,000 per year, while Hines made $121,371 as a consultant to the district.
But clearly, most of the money goes to Hope, and now the future of Vilas’s online education — and the extra revenue it brings in — is cloudy, to say the least. In mid-April, Shields acknowledged that the Vilas RE-5 district and Hope Online Academy were negotiating a possible end to Hope’s charter arrangement with Vilas. “It’s in the works,” says Shields. “It’s really difficult to say if it will happen. I can’t say any more than that.
“Ultimately, it’s probably for the best for those kids. We’re so remote. We can’t sit there and watch things closely. You have make assumptions, and you end up with egg on your face.”
Vilas online teacher Carrie Veatch answers her telephone on the first ring. She carries it with her everywhere, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, even on Saturdays and Sundays. “I want to be here just in case a student needs help.”
A former brick-and-mortar teacher who lives in eastern Colorado, Veatch switched to online teaching in 2002. “I saw an ad in the Rocky Mountain News,” she says.
Vilas online teachers work under contract and do not receive the health and other benefits offered to most public school teachers; they must supply their own computers and toll-free telephone lines. Pay is $350 per student, per year, Shields says. A typical online teacher has between 80 and 150 students, meaning a potential income that ranges from $28,000 to more than $50,000.
Veatch teaches history and American geography to about 80 students, mostly from Trinidad and Lamar (population 9,077 and 8,414, respectively) and other even smaller eastern Colorado towns. “I love my job,” she says.
At Hope Academy, each student goes to a learning center in the morning to work on his or her online classes on a computer. By contrast, Veatch’s students generally work from their own homes.
Veatch teaches almost exclusively by computer, e-mail and telephone. There’s no teleconferencing; students don’t see her on their computer screens. “Everything, the presentation, the assignment, the activities, and the assessment, is online,” says Veatch.
And there’s no such thing as a typical student. “Some work all day, then come home and get online,” she says. “They get on the computer (which Vilas supplies) log on to the Vilas online Web site, look over the assignments that are due, and start their work.”
Multiple-choice tests are corrected by software. Tests with written answers are submitted to Veatch; she usually gets them back to students within 24 hours. The students have schedules, she says, along with homework and quizzes; in world geography, for example, they read one chapter a week.
She contacts students via e-mail or through a computer program that allows her to talk with them in real time. There’s lots of telephoning. “I’ve got one student who called me four times today,” she says. “Sometimes it was about the quiz, sometimes it was just to chat. Not a lot of role models in her life. I’m always there.”